The Government Gap: How the Private Sector Has Taken Over Engineering Innovation

By Chris Mills on at

Every industry group and major company loves to moan to the government about one thing (apart from taxes): the lack of hirable engineers. But, being British, they've adopted the stiff upper lip, and are doing what the government can't (and perhaps shouldn't): fostering the next generation of incredible engineers and inventions.

As one of our readers pointed out last week, the education system falls well short of producing the necessary 100,000 engineering graduates each year. That's a well-documented problem. But moreover, a painful number of those engineering grads don't go into a technical field, and even more problematically, classic entrepreneurial innovation has fallen by the wayside.

As always, some of the blame can be left at the government's door. Policies like Dual-Award GCSE science -- which dumbs down the noble triumvirate of sciences to some kind of messy, politically-correct mismatch of the facts from a Penguin wrapper and a multiple-choice exam -- certainly suck all the joy out of science, but more endemic problems, like the lack of innovation, aren't really something you can blame the government for.

In a day and age where venture capitalists jump at anything with 'disruptive' and 'Generation X' in the Kickstarter video, you might think it's a great time to be an entrepreneur. But it's harder than you think. With software developers able to charge sky-high prices for their services, and expensive manufacturing processes like 3D printing becoming more common, just getting to a proof of concept can bankrupt the entrepreneur. It's not really something you can expect the stunningly bureaucratic Department for Business Innovation and Skills to help with (since they have difficulty with working telephones), so it's left, rightly or wrongly, up to industry to help with.

Organisations like the James Dyson Foundation do just that. It offers bursaries to engineering and design students who have a promising idea that they want to develop further. I recently spent some time with a few of this year's winners and the Royal College of Art, where the students explained their ideas and what they've used the funding for.

The ideas are all the sort of clever, ingenious designs you'd expect. The first is a 'mine simulator' that can be used to train mine-clearance teams. Accelerometers and a pressure-sensitive head give feedback to the people learning, so you can quickly understand how to dig up a mine without blowing yourself up. It's a simple, £30 package of electronics; there's nothing like it in the world at the moment.

But to develop it required money, the sort of money that a masters student just doesn't have. The same tale was repeated with other students -- the inventor of a eco-friendly replacement for plastic, made from resin and wool offcuts, had just spent his Dyson money on tooling to make a suitcase out of his material, which should allow him to properly demonstrate his product and get funding for a business. A Malawian student with an incredibly clever 'transforming wheel' needed thousands of pounds of 3D printed parts and steel spokes to make a working concept, money that he wouldn't have had without Dyson.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. Programmes for budding inventors, like the one run by the Royal College of Art, shows that the intelligence, training and skills are mostly there. To make the leap from idea to viable product, though, takes a leap of faith and a fair wodge of cash, something that's lacking without private companies taking the initiative and investing.

It's not only the James Dyson foundation investing in new talent, of course. BBC Worldwide Labs goes one step further, taking promising-looking startups and offering them access to the technical, business and legal support they need to properly develop their products. This year, the entrants range from social media to gesture tracking.

Google's also in on the game, with its high-profile Campus London project. Rather than direct funding like Dyson, the Campus is meant to turn East London into a 'tech hub', with so many tech firms situated there that innovation is rammed down your throat, and enough mentors, workshops and even a 'UX Cafe' to help you along the way.

On the grassroots front, things are looking fairly promising too. Raspberry Pi, a "tiny and cheap computer for kids", was built with the express purpose of teaching children to code and tinker with computers from a young age. The Bloodhound SSC, a programme to build a car that goes faster than 1,000MPH, is really just a publicity stunt to raise awareness of the need for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects in schools. The engineers take time out of their schedules to go lecture and demonstrate cool stuff at schools, something one of the engineers described as the "absolute highlight" of the entire programme to me. And he gets to play with a giant rocket engine on wheels.

It's fair to say, then, that British innovation and engineering is far from dead. Sure, the strength in numbers can't quite match developing economies like China and India. The education system isn't exactly the envy of the world, and government programmes are as inefficient and mis-targeted as ever. But the private sector, the very people who are gagging for engineers, are pouring money and resources into encouraging innovation. And that's a good thing, wouldn't you say?